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Rural high school students are skipping college. Should we be worried?

Second - and third - thoughts on higher ed

Jun 21, 2018 at 5:00 am
    Centerville High School graduating seniors walk in a line during a practice for the graduation ceremony in the gymnasium of Lakeview Elementary School in Centerville on Friday, May. 18, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

    For a growing number of American high schoolers — especially those crammed in the country’s swelling urban centers — college is a foregone conclusion. A typical graduation day question is, “Where are you going to college?” not “Are you going to college?”

    But for students in more rural parts of the nation — such as much of Iowa — the academic conclusions are not so certain. Many, in fact, assume post-graduation paths opposite the collegiate route — landing them in local factories, on farms or in semi-trailer trucks.

    Some reach the end of their senior year having not thought much about what’s next.

    “I never really tried to reach out or nothing about college,” Trenton Bogle, 18, told The Gazette. “I’m sure (the school) would have coached me up a little bit. But I never really asked about it. I was so indecisive on, am I going? What am I doing?”


    Bogle is a senior at Centerville High School. He plans to go to Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge next year to study business management. He didn’t begin the application process until the second semester of his senior year. He took his ACTs in the spring.

    “I didn’t know how much went into it,” Bogle said. “You have to apply for all this stuff — the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and scholarships.”

    Centerville serves as a sort of microcosm of what’s been dubbed a rural higher education crisis, which has attracted more media attention as jobs requiring postsecondary education boom, and those that don’t dwindle.

    Iowa has set a goal of getting 70 percent of its workforce some form of education or training beyond high school, by 2025, when job projections show 68 percent of all Iowa careers will require such additional knowledge.

    In 2014, about 60 percent of Iowans over age 25 had postsecondary education or training — even as the number of jobs held by Iowans with bachelor’s degrees or higher increased the fastest between 2005 and 2014, according to the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.

    Jobs for those with associate degrees or some college also increased during that time. But employment for Iowans with a high school diploma or less dropped 14 percent, according to the state agency focused on helping Iowans “make education after high school possible.”

    In addition, the commission found low-income and minority Iowans are less likely to enroll and graduate from college — which are the populations seeing the most gains in the state.

    “In counties where you’ve got lower median income, college might seem like less of a possibility,” said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communication coordinator for Iowa College Aid.

    ‘Our current reality’

    Thus the state — along with its public universities and their governing Board of Regents — have launched a handful of programs aimed at improving college access, awareness and direct-from-high- school enrollment.

    Those efforts are starting to reach counties such as Centerville, where a new principal has resolved to launch initiatives and supports to get students thinking about their collegiate options and long-term career goals early and often.

    “We are trying to take strides and put things in place that will expose kids — it’s all about exposure,” Centerville Principal Jeremy Hissem told The Gazette.

    Hissem, who only started at the leadership post last summer, said he admits the school, district and community have fallen short in the past.

    “Our current reality is that we haven’t encouraged in the past, or even had opportunities for, learning about career opportunities or college opportunities as much as we would like to,” Hissem said.

    When looking at a county-by-county map of educational attainment in Iowa, Appanoose County — where Centerville is the county seat — sits among a pocket of rural southern counties with percentages below 30 percent, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012-16 American Community Survey.

    Appanoose — with 29 percent of its residents reporting having earned an associate degree or higher — neighbors Wayne, Monroe, and Van Buren counties — all of which have 24 percent — and Davis, Wapello and Lucas counties — which have 27 to 28 percent attainment levels.

    Meanwhile, Iowa’s most educated counties include those that are more urban and host a university or college — including Johnson, with the University of Iowa and a 61 percent attainment level; Story, with Iowa State University and a 60 percent attainment level; and Polk, home to state capital Des Moines, the Des Moines Area Community College, and 58 percent attainment.

    And Iowa is not alone. Statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse show high-income white students from rural America, for example, are less likely to enroll in college right from high school than their white but more urban counterparts — with 74 percent from suburban schools, 72 percent from urban districts and 61 percent from rural areas.

    Comparing statewide figures, Iowa is in the middle of the pack — with a 39 percent attainment rate, below some of the highest, such as Massachusetts at 49 percent.

    The state recently began tracking the percent of Iowans who enroll in a college or university within a year of graduating high school, finding rural counties — again — often report lower levels. Centerville is near the bottom of the list with 61 percent — based on the average of its 2013, 2014 and 2015 groups, according to the state’s postsecondary readiness reports.

    Statewide, that figure is 71 percent. Other schools on the lower end of the spectrum include Wayne Community Junior-Senior High School at 57 percent and Wapello Senior High at 63 percent. High achieving high schools include West High School in Iowa City at 84 percent, Valley High School in West Des Moines at 85 percent and Solon High School at 86 percent.

    Analysts explain low enrollment and attainment levels in rural Iowa might be somewhat cyclical, as low educational attainment leads to lower salaries, and low-income families often can’t afford — or don’t think they can afford — college.

    “We also know that in the rural areas there’s a higher chance that students who go to college are going to be first-generation students,” Sedrel said. “And then, of course, we’re back to the income.”


    ‘Not as simple as plowing a row’

    And then there’s another more-basic factor often driving low educational attainment in rural America, according to Sedrel of Iowa College Aid.

    “In rural families, there might be an idea that kids come out of school and go straight into farming — and that’s not limited to farming either,” she said. “Where there are families where we see a family business — sometimes there is a reluctance to not only spend the money on college but have two or four years before that family member joins the family workforce.”

    She urged, though, that even farming anymore isn’t “just about tilling the ground.”

    “Farming is a small business or — depending on the farm — potentially a large business,” Sedrel said. “Whoever runs a farm, they are doing economic planning, they’re doing accounting, they’re doing all kinds of horticultural calculations. It’s not as simple as plowing a row and dropping seeds.”

    The same goes for manufacturing jobs, which used to be simpler.

    “Once upon a time, manufacturing meant that you run an assembly line doing a repetitive motion all day,” she said. “Now manufacturing is more likely to mean that you’re the person who ensures the machine that does the repetitive motion is working.”

    And many of those jobs now require additional training.

    “There’s a reason that the state is pushing really hard to get more people to go for some training after high school and for the state to really focus on these STEM training programs and STEM careers,” Sedrel said. “It’s because science, technology, engineering, math — that is where the job vacancies are going to be. That’s where Iowa has to pump up its workforce if we want to economically competitive.”

    “If you expose kids to those kinds of experiences in high school, and they’re successful, then they know they can be successful."

    - Jeremy Hissem

    Centerville High School Principal


    That’s where Hissem at Centerville High is gearing up. Using career days and a partnership with the local Indian Hills Community College, The high school is building its trades programs, offering more engineering training and helping students build community connections.

    “We have got to find ways to get kids skills,” Hissem said. “There are a lot of jobs right here, within 45 minutes of Centerville right now, that are open. There’s probably 30 openings right now that are at a very good living wage, if not above a living wage. But you’ve got to have a skill set.”

    Project Lead the Way is an Iowa program centered on the STEM fields that follows students for years, providing support toward select career paths. Hissem said Centerville will incorporate that programming into its curriculum in the fall.

    “We are sending our teachers to a training this summer to learn more about Project Lead the Way and what we need to do,” he said.

    By simply changing the way teachers talk about opportunities, offering more college courses and bolstering awareness of future career and education options, Centerville will increase its college and university enrollment, Hissem said.

    “If you expose kids to those kinds of experiences in high school, and they’re successful, then they know they can be successful,” he said. “Hopefully, that will help them take that next step or leap.”

    ‘I thought about college’

    Exposure via duel enrollment courses in entrepreneurship at Indian Hills helped Centerville senior Bogle decide on a business management track at Iowa Central. Although he admits a struggle with indecision — especially at this early stage in life.

    “I’m very picky with what I want to do,” he said. “In my mind, I feel like if I’m going to do something, it better be for the rest of your life. I don’t want to jump from career to career.”

    That’s why community college felt like the right first step — with the knowledge he could later transfer to a four-year institution.

    Centerville senior Peyton Moore, 18, also felt unsure and thus a desire to delay any costly decision — sending him to basic training instead. He’s heading to Fort Benning in Georgia with the Army after graduation, largely because “I don’t really know what I want to do.”

    “I need to mature more,” he said.

    Moore intends eventually to get a postsecondary degree — maybe in business or law enforcement.

    “I like helping people,” he said, to which his friends chimed in, “You’re good at it.”

    And Moore would like to bring those skills back to Centerville.

    “Because of the sense of community, all the good people that are here,” he said. “You’ll have some bad people. But it’s like that in every town.”

    Garrett Lee, 18, is graduating this year and, as with Moore, intends to stay in Centerville. But, unlike Moore, he isn’t planning on pursuing post-high school education. He wants to farm. He always has.


    “I work for a big cow operation right now,” he said. “So I just plan on sticking with them and saving up to start my own operation.”

    Seven days a week, Lee rises at 5 a.m. to start chores. On weekdays, he breaks for school and returns right after to continue tending to cattle — sometimes until nearly midnight.

    “I stay pretty late — especially right now because it’s calving season,” he said. “We are calving out over 500 head of cattle.”

    College, he said, isn’t really necessary to continue doing what he loves — especially as he wasn’t enamored with school to start with.

    “I thought about college for a couple different agriculture jobs, but there’s really not a big enough demand for them to spend the money when I can go right now and get all the experience I need and have everything I need to start what I want to do,” he said.

    In fact, Lee noted, he’s working already to get 60 of his own cattle and 20 acres of land.

    “There are so many young farmer grants and low-interest loans … that they pretty well make it available to where anybody can start a farm. It’s just how well you manage it to make it successful.”

    But that doesn’t mean Iowa’s higher education advocates are going to stop fighting for those high schoolers who never pictured themselves in cap and gown.

    ‘Getting more Iowans to and through college’

    Iowa’s three public universities — as well as private and community colleges — have made it a priority to grab those graduates who don’t think they can afford college or would be the first in their families to attend.

    The University of Iowa, for example, recently hosted a First-Gen Summit aimed at increasing support and outreach for first-generation students and growing awareness about the 24 percent of undergraduate first-generation students attending the UI.

    The institution offers numerous scholarships geared toward helping that population — including the Advantage Iowa Award for first-year students from underrepresented populations or who have participated in the federally funded Upward Bound program, which focuses support on low-income and first-generation students.

    Iowa State University offers scholarships specifically for first-generation students, and the University of Northern Iowa has scholarships that give preference to first-generation applicants.

    At the state level, Iowa College Aid administers a federal grant through a program called Gear Up Iowa that focuses resources on school districts that have more than 50 percent of their student populations qualifying for free- and reduced-price school lunches, a poverty indicator.

    The state also has launched local college access networks that bring together education, civic, business and not-for-profit leaders to support continuing education for their youngest citizens. Iowa also offers a growing number of student loan forgiveness programs that — among other things — aim to keep collegiate graduates in Iowa, specifically rural Iowa, and ease some of the debt students might harbor.

    “The programs have the same goal,” Sedrel, with Iowa College Aid, said. “Getting more Iowans to and through college.”

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    This story appears in the June 24, 2018 edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Find it in The Gazette, or single copies and subscriptions are available for purchase at

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